For a bit of a Gulf Hagas “Grand Canyon of Maine” experience close to home, consider a visit to the beautiful 230-acre Cathance River Nature Preserve in Topsham this September. Seven miles of hiking trails comprised of five interconnected loop trails provide ample room to explore upland forests, a striking circular heath and 1.5 miles of Cathance River frontage.
The Cathance River originates in Bowdoin and flows southeast 20 miles to its meeting with Merrymeeting Bay near Bowdoinham. In the preserve the river drops nearly 90 feet, providing dramatic chutes, cataracts and rock formations. The water levels are low right now, exposing ledges and boulders not usually seen.
During the high water of spring expert “steep creek” boaters take on the formidable challenge of negotiating the Class1-III whitewater tumbling down through the preserve. When you visit now it is hard to imagine there ever being enough water to boat down through the narrow passageways lined with sharp cliff edges, hairpin turns and hull-gashing ledges.
To get to the preserve enter the Highland Green development off the Route 196 Topsham Bypass and follow the Village Road into Highland Green for 0.8 miles. Turn right onto Evergreen Circle and follow it a short distance to where the road becomes gravel. From here drive another half mile to a small parking lot on the left.
The preserve trails are well marked (in fact, this is the best-signed hiking area we have ever seen). Download a preserve map from the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust website (www.btlt.org) or pick one up at the Cathance River Education Alliance kiosk on the southeastern edge of the mile-long Barnes Leap Loop. We recently enjoyed three hours of early morning exploring, leaving only the eastern Ravine Loop for another time.
The Heath Loop encircles a unique mid-coastal fen. We were stunned by the display of cotton grass permeating the bog. The margins of the western shoreline were pure white, magnificently bordered above by the deep dark reds of swamp maples marking the change of seasons. This is one of the greatest concentrations of bog cotton we have ever seen on our hikes in Maine.
As you wind your way around the bog you will see the remains of significant quarrying operations undertaken over the years. As far back as the mid 1800s and up into the 1950s this area was mined for feldspar, used in the making of ceramics and pottery. Other interesting uses included the making of false teeth and the creation of abrasive soaps like Bon Ami. In 1927, feldspar mills in Topsham alone produced 1/8 of all the feldspar mined in the U.S. and 1/16 of the world’s production.
By following portions of the Barnes Leap Trail, a loop connector trail over to the Beaver Loop, and the Rapids Trail you will meander along the river for more than a mile. There are many benches strategically placed to maximize the viewing angles. We enjoyed watching a blue heron fly out of a placid back eddy as we came around a sharp bend in the trail, and a few minutes later saw a kingfisher fly low over a large downstream pool. Beaver and muskrat can often be seen as well.
The evergreen forest is cool even on a warm day, the dark shadows eerily mysterious. The sound of gurgling water mixes with the gentle brush of wind through the treetops. Eventually you will come to a wooden fence high above the water. You will see the remains of an old bridge across the dark chasm. It is a 20-foot drop straight down to the narrow ribbon of water. A large cave has been carved out of the vertical wall by the powerful swirling spring waters.
Eventually we met up with the blue-blazed Rapids Trail and walked down onto a large expanse of gently sloping polished ledges. The sun was just poking around a sharp downstream bend in the river so we had the luxury of being either in the shadows or the sun, or half and half. Above us a series of drops plunged down and past the ledges with the water funneling into a tongue of white only a yard wide.
We walked over to a sharp chest-high ledge protruding out from the opposite side of the river and leaned out to rest on it, the water tumbling under us. We could only imagine the same spot in the spring when the drop might possibly rival the grandeur of Little Niagara Falls in Baxter State Park with its torrent of snow melt in search of the great river below.
At open spots in the preserve canopy we noted carpets of wintergreen, their scarlet berries just starting to form. Canada mayflowers, whose prolific ground-level yellow-green cupped leaves dominate the May forest floor, now are sporting small tan berries just starting to turn red. Sumac leaves are starting to add brilliant yellows and reds to the trailside palette.
We figure three more trips into the preserve are definitely in order over the next few months: to see the full flush of foliage colors, to snowshoe in to see the frozen waterfalls and ice-glazed walls of winter and an early spring trip to see the narrows swollen with raging whitewater.